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‘Nemesis’ showcases the work of artist Nicole Eisenman at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla

‘Breakup’ by Nicole Eisenman
‘Breakup’ by Nicole Eisenman
/ Courtesy

Opening reception Saturday, May 9

The work of French-born, New York-based artist Nicole Eisenman, whether on canvas, on paper or in sculpture, is both bold and visionary, thoughtful commentary on history and community. It’s no wonder Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) assistant curator Elizabeth Rooklidge calls Eisenman “one of the leading figurative artists of her generation.”

Visitors to the museum will be able to see for themselves beginning May 9 when MCASD opens “Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993-2013,” a mid-career retrospective that will feature more than 120 works, from painting and drawing to sculpture and printmaking, in four gallery spaces. The traveling exhibition comes to La Jolla from the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, following its origination at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis where it was curated by Kelly Shindler. The works will be on display through Sept. 6.

(Simultaneously, MCASD will open an exhibition by Los Angeles-based abstract artist Sarah Cain, “SARAH CAIN blue in your body, red when it hits the air,” on display until July 19. (See story on B6.)

“These are two artists whose work is particularly relevant right now and relevant in the context of our history. Both artists are painters and to a certain extent each of their work is about the history of painting and about what it means to be a woman painter,” said Rooklidge.

“Both are engaging with history. Nicole Eisenman is doing so more overtly. She references an astonishing array of art historical movements and styles, and mixes them together, sometimes even in one painting.” These references include “all of the great Western masters of art history,” added Rooklidge. “Everything from Renaissance painters to Hieronymous Bosch … to the social realist painters of the ’20s.”

Vibrant colors, either on their own or in contrast, characterize Eisenman’s paintings, in part to “disrupt the seriousness of modernist painting with what you’d call feel-good color,” said Rooklidge. Yet some of Eisenman’s images are unsettling, even disturbing.

“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s quite shocking and it makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s very effective in that sense. One of the basic things Nicole Eisenman’s work is about is what it means for us to live in a human, messy, uncomfortable body, and the difficulty sometimes in relating to each other and living with our identity. At its heart, it’s about trying to make connections with others and live in a community.”

In this vein, Eisenman’s work addresses identity issues.

“That’s one of her main subjects: gender identity, sexuality, the way those various notions are communicated,” Rooklidge said. “She approaches them in a variety of ways not often portrayed in the history of art.”

MCASD expects both the Eisenman and Cain exhibitions to heighten visitors’ appreciation for the breadth of making contemporary art. “We hope that people will walk away with a whole sense of the possibilities of painting,” said Rooklidge. “That contemporary artists are not confined by the legacy that they are working in.

“They are able to break the boundaries of the past. The present and the future of contemporary painting are offering a host of new possibilities.”